Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 3, 2015
Mabel O. Wilson Negro Building: Black Americans in the World of Fairs and Museums A George Gund Foundation Book in African American Studies. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012. 464 pp.; 57 b/w ills. Cloth $41.95 (9780520268425)

In 2016, the much-anticipated Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is slated to open on the National Mall in Washington, DC. The museum’s mission, as stated on its website, “to help all Americans see just how central African American history is for all,” links the act of viewing to the acts of remembrance and understanding the museum promotes. Fittingly, Mabel O. Wilson devotes the prologue and epilogue of her study of twentieth-century black-organized public history exhibitions and museums, Negro Buildings: Black Americans in the World of Fairs and Museums, with the circumstances surrounding the NMAAHC. Following Rosalyn Deutsche, Wilson posits that public exhibitions function as “physical analogue[s]” to the public sphere (10). Given the historic invisibility of African Americans within the dominant public sphere, Wilson acknowledges the significance of the NMAAHC and asks “what does it mean for black Americans to claim a physical space in the nation’s symbolic cultural landscape and a symbolic space in the nation’s historical consciousness, two spheres in which their presence and contributions have been calculatingly rendered invisible and abject for over two centuries?”(3) As her deftly narrated history reveals, the obstacles the NMAAHC has faced, which range from the financial, political, and organizational to the physical, spatial, and visual, are not unique and have beset similar black-organized attempts to present African American history to the public. A stellar example of interdisciplinary scholarship, Wilson combines extensive archival research with visual, cultural, and urban studies to foment her argument that members of the black counterpublic sphere have historically utilized participation in exhibitions to gain access to the public sphere and to challenge racist dominant discourses (9).

Five chronological chapters examine the temporary installations found at early and mid-twentieth-century World’s Fairs and Emancipation Expositions as well as the grassroots origins of black public history museums in the 1960s. Moving from Jim Crow through the Civil Rights era, Wilson takes the reader from Atlanta to cosmopolitan Paris and into the Northern urban enclaves of New York, Chicago, and Detroit. Extending her scholarly gaze beyond the fairground walls, Wilson situates each example against the political and cultural backdrop of its respective location. In providing details about the planning processes and exhibitionary strategies, she gives voice not only to a familiar cadre of individuals involved in crafting these visions of black history and progress—Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois, Margaret Burroughs, Ida B. Wells, and others—but she also elucidates the inter- and intra-racial challenges these exhibitions encountered. Wilson’s attention to the planning and exhibitionary strategies deployed at these events illustrates the various ways the black counterpublic sphere used these spaces to articulate messages of racial progress. As the century advances, the exhibitions reflected the evolution of the racial discourse as it morphed from one of racial uplift via manual labor and industrial education to one that was increasingly radical, Pan-African, and culture-oriented.

Wilson’s history begins in Atlanta where the Negro Building at the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition marked the first time African Americans were given control over their own exhibition space. Black organizers there were divided as to whether the separate exhibition hall subscribed to the pervasive racism blacks encountered in the Jim Crow era. Should the organizers pursue a separate but equal approach or fight for integration? During the Exposition’s opening ceremony Washington delivered his controversial “Atlanta Compromise” speech that presented his accommodationist strategy in which blacks sought advancement via agricultural and industrial labor rather than through political equality and social integration. Appropriately, the majority of the exhibits within the Negro Building promoted Washington’s message of racial uplift through industrial education and manual work (63). Ultimately, Wilson’s analysis reveals how the location and content of the Negro Building reinforced the African American’s inferior status, and her attention to the planning process uncovers the debates occurring within the black community regarding self-representation.

In chapter 2, Wilson studies the American Negro exhibition created for the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle. Although originally intended for an international audience, Wilson charts the differing domestic responses to the exhibition during its travels to Buffalo (1901) and Charleston (1902). Organizer T. J. Calloway called upon Washington for help in securing federal funding but then looked to DuBois for curatorial guidance for the section focusing on black life in America. Part of the larger U.S. Social Economy section, it relied on a range of visual materials—charts, maps, statistics, and documents—to convey its message of racial equality (110). Education was again seen as key to racial advancement, but changes to the message were apparent. Visitors to the exhibition thumbed through photographs of racial types, read the discrimination found in Georgia’s “Black Codes,” and perused a 1,200 book bibliography that highlighted the African American’s intellectual achievements. Whereas in Atlanta, exhibition organizers followed Washington’s lead and demonstrated how the African American fit into the economy of the New South via labor, with American Negro DuBois and his counterparts highlighted the centrality of African Americans to modernity.

Wilson’s third chapter deals with a host of commemorative expositions held in Northern industrial cities between 1910 and 1926: the 1915 Lincoln Jubilee in Chicago and the National Emancipation Exhibit in New York City, the 1920 America’s Making Exposition in New York City, and the 1926 Sesquicentennial Exposition in Philadelphia. In a Northern context, organizers redefined the message of racial progress and black accomplishment as displays of urban life prevailing over those of Southern life (141). These expositions offered black leaders opportunities to gauge white responses to the presented ideas of black progress, Pan-Africanism, and Civil Rights (171). The expositions capitalized on the widespread use of historical pageants to “nurture civic pride” and to “cultivate communal identities rooted in myth, history, and place” (157). DuBois’s popular pageant The Star of Ethiopia, for example, located the origin of black history in Africa. At these expositions the African American visual artist appears as a cultural worker, and readers of Negro Building are made familiar with the contributions of artists like Meta Warrick Fuller and Byrone E. Fontaine. Held after the heyday of the immensely popular World’s Fairs, the grand ambitions of these expositions often fell flat.

The 1940 exhibitions, the America’s Negro Exposition in Chicago and the 75 Years of Negro Progress exhibition in Detroit, are the subject of chapter 4. Mounted in post-New Deal America, the plight of the black worker took center stage alongside the familiar messages of racial progress and social advancement. At the same moment, the leftist Cultural Front’s radical agenda of racial equality, workers’ rights, human rights, and visual arts worked its way into the exhibitions. Black history was presented as a political case. Emancipation was posited as the freeing of black workers, and it illuminated the challenges the workers faced, which in turn served as a call to political action (232). In Detroit, the race men—black businessmen, clergy, and politicians—in charge of 75 Years of Progress were at odds about how to ameliorate black Detroit. Unable to confront the issues at hand, the exposition returned to notions of self-help (201). Still tied to Washington’s ideals, reviews of the fair were mixed. In comparison, organizers of the Chicago exhibition, which included members of the Leftist Popular Front, took a different approach and promoted integration and social assimilation (221). In Chicago it became clear that there was no “cohesive black nationalist spirit” (232). With its desire to move beyond a racialized nationalism toward solidarity with all oppressed minorities and its inclusion of politically motivated culture, the American Negro Exposition is key to understanding the permanent institutions for black history and culture established in the 1960s (221).

Wilson locates the end of the era of fairs and expositions with Chicago’s 1963 Century of Negro Progress Exposition. Because “the message of racial progress was more valuable than the material content,” only a few objects displayed at the earlier exhibitions entered the collections of black colleges and universities. (246) Wilson’s final chapter examines the creation and evolution of Detroit’s International Afro-American Museum (IAM)—now the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History—which was part of the first generation of black public history museums formed in the early to mid-1960s. Bolstered by civil rights activism and black nationalism, the IAM used a variety of strategies including a unique mobile museum to promote a Pan-African black consciousness. The IAM and its counterparts highlighted an African American culture tied to and rooted in Africa rather than white America. A 1965 congressional bill thwarted IAM’s goal of becoming the first national museum of African American history and culture. Charles Wright, director of IAM, led the charge against the federally funded national museum. (Wright opposed the federally funded national museum proposed in 1965 because he felt it was another example of white administrators taking control of the representation of black history.) Citing the absence of African American representation at the Smithsonian, Wright made a case for black-organized displays of black history and culture. While plans for the national museum fell by the wayside, Wright’s actions led to the establishment of a national association of black museums that fought to keep black museums in the hands of black organizers. The IAM is a fitting conclusion for Wilson’s investigation into how members of the black counterpublic sphere used the participation in and organization of exhibitions and institutions to counter mainstream anti-black racism.

Ambitious in its aim and far-reaching in its content, Wilson’s Negro Buildings provides a much-needed primer for the study of black-organized exhibitions found at World’s Fairs and Expositions from the late nineteenth century to the present. With its domestic and African American focus, the book is a welcome addition to the extant literature on World’s Fairs which when dealing with notions of race has focused predominately on displays of Africa at international venues. Although Wilson attends to questions of class and race, gender is a paradigm that could be and should be explored in greater detail by future scholars. Wilson’s art history is an institutional one that does not privilege objects, but rather sites of display. While Wilson provides solid descriptions of the exhibition pavilions and some of the objects displayed within them, the reader often yearns for more and/or color reproductions of the objects discussed. Moreover, in several instances the black-and-white illustrations appear far from the in-text discussion.

Having fleshed out the message of racial progress advanced at these various exhibitions, Wilson lays a critical and solid groundwork for future scholarship on the artworks and objects exhibited. For example, Negro Buildings pairs well with the likes of Renée Ater’s Remaking Race and History: The Sculpture of Meta Warrick Fuller (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011). With its interdisciplinary scope and nuanced analysis, scholars in a host of disciplines—African American studies, American Studies, Art History, History, and Museum Studies—will no doubt find the text useful.

Rebecca VanDiver
Assistant Professor of African American Art, Department of History of Art, Vanderbilt University